by Anton Wills-Eve
my survival of having a mother like mine is the only art I ever fully mastered.
We all have mothers, of course we do. But learning to live, love and survive with them can be the most difficult thing in one’s life. It certainly is if she was was like mine. Survival in Mama’s world was a heroic and necessary act of devotion. Listen to this.
Quite honestly only my sister and I can probably truly have claimed to survive her at all. In 1940, after she had spent nearly fifteen years as one of the best known and highest paid female entertainers in the country, she was diagnosed with four terminal illnesses. She had already undergone major pioneering surgery for its time, 1937, having her thyroid gland removed, and half her bowel replaced by a plastic one. She was told she would never have children and would be unlikely to live for more than five more years.
But mama was a generous woman who wanted to share three things in life. Firstly her wit, which was fast, original, clever, hilarious and kept half the country rolling about laughing for some ten years. Secondly was her love of God which she never forced on anyone, just told it like a story which made people want to hear it. As a Scots/Irish Glasgow Catholic, with a very strong personality, people tended to listen. They predominantly did not agree with her, but she ignored this and just assumed they would accept her words as Gospel. Why on earth should they? After all she did not expect audiences to believe her jokes, and she certainly never expected anyone to think of her as anything but a very attractive woman, even if she was the best male impersonator on the British stage and half the country assumed she must be a lesbian, which she very definitely was not.
The third thing she wanted to share was her genes. My father was eight years her junior but really loved her. When she said “I am having a boy and a girl, she meant it and told her physicians what they could do with their protestations of horror about how she was planning to kill herself. Well early in 1941 my adorable sister was born in the middle of the blitz, just about every natural law of survival was broken that day. She is still going strong, healthy, happy and extremely successful. Mum certainly won her case in that argument. However, my sister has far more of my father’s natural traits than my mother’s so perhaps her next quest for a son was justifiable. Nobody in the family or the medical world thought so. But she and dad must have done because, against all the odds, I saw the light of day in May 1942. But with me her luck ran out.
My birth took far more out of her than just me. All her reproductive bits were removed and she nearly died. She had seven more major abdominal operations by l949, describing her stomach as a map of the London Underground, and twice during that period my sister and I were told she had died. I have still got a copy of one obviously precocious obituary on her written in an early edition of the London Evening News; hastily taken down before the next edition. Her only complaint about this was that someone had said she was the first female to top the bill on a live radio broadcast of a Royal Variety show in front of King George the Vth. She said she wasn’t she was the second as her sister, the female half of their act, spoke the first word. I have heard a recording of the show and actually you cannot tell!
But there were two very, very difficult aspects of being brought up by mum in one’s young life, let’s say three to eight years. Firstly she did not argue with her children. She told them what she wanted them to know, right from wrong true from false, autobiographical and theatrical reminiscences. If either of us disbelieved her or pointed out that other people’s accounts of many events she recounted did not tally with hers, she simply looked at us as though you were mad and changed the subject. My aunt, the other half of the act, always told a different version of everything but if you got them together, in the hope of making one concede, they simply turned the moment into an ad-libbed, cross-patter sketch that was as funny as anything you could ever hope to hear. Truth in retrospect was a complete non-starter in their world then. Actually when my aunt did write her autobiography in 1966 she got her own birthday wrong, the place she was born wrong and the ages of both her sons wrong. We never even bothered to tell her, she had her own highly successful weekly radio show by then and it was pointless.
The worst thing about living with mum, though, was her love of acting like a raving idiot whenever she was out in public with my sister and I. This was not often as she was bed ridden for two thirds of the time throughout the whole of her life after my birth. But imagine getting on a bus with a mother who was often recognised by many passengers and who might tell the conductor that she was bankrupt and was taking her poor children to a shop in Kensington to sell their shoes. Then asking to be excused paying the fare. On that occasion she got away with it, but imagine what we went through aged seven and eight! That sort of behaviour went on all her life and probably the days which really tested my ability to survive maternal embarrassment was when I was thirteen and she was well enough to be invited to give out the prizes on school speech day. As she handed a handsomely bound, gold embossed complete set of Dickens to a boy who was top scholar in his year, she turned to the headmaster and remarked, “You can’t think much of this poor fellow, Father, if you expect him to wade through all this rubbish.” The audience liked it, I curled up.
But poor Mama really did suffer dreadfully and in 1957 developed chronic emphysema, a breathing congestion of the lungs which stopped her singing and greatly reduced her talking. She had to give up smoking and drinking. With her other illnesses, it also started to change her basically humorous and loving personality. She knew she was dying but just refused. She became very possessive of my sister and me and tried to run our lives. She would totally annihilate our boyfriends or girlfriends, so much so that at sixteen my sister told her she was never bringing a boy home again. She never did until she married very shortly before mum finally died. I had one girl who simply put up with mum for my sake, pitying her more than anything. “Oh, Ton,” her pet name for me, “Why does Ermyntrude (a character mum invented) still smoke and drink like she does, she must know it’s hastening the end.” It was true, but Mama’s will power was phenomenal. She managed to break us up when we wanted to marry later, but by then her mind had gone. It was still quite terrible.
In the interim period my father had been posted to Paris and I went to university at the Sorbonne and my sister in England. We had one last great family holiday in October 1961 which I have recounted elsewhere. That was the time we met the Pope (St.John XXIII) as a family and was the greatest reward she ever received for her constant faith. But through all those weird days of wealth, fame, embarrassment, love and suffering for all of us, I still managed to keep sane and survive the extraordinary part of my life I shared with her. I flew back from Saigon and was the only person with her when she died 28 years after giving me life. My only regret is that she never believed I had a dreadful phobia and anxiety neurosis from birth. I can only live with this because I genuinely think she both knew and recognised my torment yet blamed herself for it.
Anton, she sounds like an incredible – though clearly formidable – woman. Would it be intrusive to ask what her name was, and to Google her? Jane xx
Oh dear, Jane. Yes, she’s on you tube in clips from the very early thirties, so are my aunt, godfather and two of my uncles, I’ve promised my sister no names. but try ‘The Houston Sisters’ on youtube. you’ll see which one she is. The other two main online entries on them, google and wikipedia are riddled with errors, especially dates, and omissions so I’m going to edit them.also the year of mum’s death on youtube is wrong. Maybe I had better write that autobiography everyone’s always going on about. do you really want to know all this ! 🙂 ! ? x Anton
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Your life and mine have been so different Anton. I admire your intelligence, compassion and sense of humour, and you have led a fascinating life. I’m interested in everything you have to say.
Don’t tell your sister, but I watched four clips on youtube. What a charismatic woman/man your mother was. She was utterly adorable on stage, but I can see how embarrassing it must have been when she took her act out onto the streets – I love your tale about the bus trip. Jane xx